Tired of boring lunches? Try this genius formula for flavor-packed meals

Working from home has radically changed my relationship with lunch. Through college and my first few newsroom jobs, I didn’t make it a priority to take time out of the middle of my day to eat. I was “too busy,” a statement which I wore like a badge of honor while downing my third iced coffee of the day (but in retrospect was steeped in ill-conceived Girl Boss aspirations and the vestiges of an eating disorder). The caffeine sometimes kept me from dragging, but by the late afternoon, I would inevitably hit a wall and have to scrounge around the office for dusty purse candy or a stale granola bar. 

If the past few years of living through a pandemic has taught me anything, however, it’s that taking a little extra time for the benefit of your body is invaluable. Of course, this looks different for different people. It could mean going on — as Vogue put it in 2021 — a “silly little walk” for your mental health. It could mean taking a glorious afternoon nap, silencing the voices telling you that you should be up doing something “productive” instead. 

In my case, it means actually making myself lunch. 

Read more: A lunch for when there’s no time for lunch

I’m not fussy about what I make. While I tend to plot out a weekly menu for dinners, lunches are a little more loose. I do, however, have two non-negotiables. First, the lunches I prepare are vegetarian or vegan. Second, to borrow a phrase from comedian Tim Robinson, “You can’t skip lunch — you just can’t.” Put another way, I just have to make something. 

My lunches tend to follow a formula: There’s a quick-cooking carbohydrate, a simple protein and some fat.

It’s an act of self-care, but flexing my culinary muscles within my newly forged routine has actually been a lot of fun. Along the way, I’ve ended up making some really delicious meals with bibs and bobs from my pantry and kitchen. They tend to follow a formula: There’s a quick-cooking carbohydrate, like canned beans, instant rice or toast; a simple protein, such as chickpeas, edamame, eggs or tofu​​​; and some fat, which is most often avocado, nut butter or a drizzle of olive oil. 

There’s room for some mild intrigue in the formula, though, depending on what ingredients I have on hand. This week, for instance, I had some stunning early-season radishes, sweet potatoes and scallions, as well as some errant cans of black beans and coconut milk. I used them to make the following meals:

Lunch 1

Black beans and eggs (Ashlie Stevens )Canned black beans (which I honestly stewed down with a pinch or two of leftover taco seasoning), topped with a fried egg, sliced radish, avocado, scallions and pumpkin seeds. 

Lunch 2

Sweet potatoes and eggs (Ashlie Stevens )Scrambled eggs with air-fried sweet potato slices (they only took 10 minutes in the air fryer!) and avocado topped with this yuzu furikake, which I’m putting on everything these days. 

Lunch 3

Avocado and eggs (Ashlie Stevens )Instant rice cooked in coconut milk with a splash of sesame oil, topped with a steamed egg yolk, avocado, housemade chili crisp (which was given to me by my favorite Vietnamese restaurant owner), peanuts and scallions. 

While these three dishes have some definite overlap, they’re distinct enough that I won’t get bored. I enter the afternoon feeling nourished, and instead of taking pride in the fact that I’m “too busy,” I feel a small surge of accomplishment because I actually took care of myself.

As more and more folks head back to the office, lunch has been on my mind a bunch. What does a return to eating in the office look like? How have restaurants in business districts fared during the pandemic? How do you break out of a sad desk salad rut — whether you’re returning to the office or not? 

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We’ll be tackling these questions (and more!) at the end of this month through an entire week of stories, recipes and how-tos centered around lunch. In the meantime, subscribe to The Bite, Salon’s weekly food newsletter, where this essay was first published.

Got any questions about lunch food you’d like to see answered? Give us a shout at food@salon.com

Skipping PB&J’s for now? Try one of our other favorite lunch recipes: 

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